Hamlets I’d Like to See
I had the chance to see the Robert Icke production of Hamlet at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City a couple of weekends ago. In short, lots of big video screens, a Bob Dylan soundtrack, terrific acting (especially by the young Alex Lawther and Joshua Higgot as Hamlet and Horatio and Jennifer Ehle as Gertrude) that made the nearly four-hour production fly by. But my favorite thing was the happy ending.
Hamlet with a happy ending?
Yes, instead of drawing the curtain on a corpse-strewn stage, this play ends with the dead rising again and joining one another at an ethereal party decorated with white balloons reminiscent of those that earlier festooned the wedding/coronation of Claudius and Gertrude.
I’ve been thinking of Hamlet ever since that experience, and since returning home I’ve watched two film versions—the 1992 Kenneth Branagh version, 4 hours long, and the 2000 Ethan Hawke version, slightly less than 2 hours and set in New York at the turn of the millennium.
Here’s the conundrum. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is paralyzed by doubt, depression, and indecision. Later he finds the courage and confidence to act: the upshot is that every character in the play, with the exception of Horatio, dies, and the Norwegian Fortinbras is on the verge of conquering Denmark.
What are we to make of this? Damned if we don’t, and damned if we do? It strikes me that the signature advice of Polonius (generally played as a pompous hypocrite), might after all be the key to Hamlet: “To thine own self be true/and it must follow, as the night the day,/thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Hamlet is a student, an introvert and an intellectual. He is mourning the death of his father, a hero and a warrior who successfully defended Denmark from Fortinbras. Struggling with his grief, and believing his father was murdered by his uncle (who subsequently married Hamlet’s mother), Hamlet is driven to take a series of actions more appropriate to a man like his father. Thus, he fails to be true to himself and brings about a tragic end.
But I liked the happy ending. Yes, everyone was still dead, but as they say, deciding when the story is over affects the way it ends. Icke’s decision to extend the play beyond the corporal deaths of the characters to some imagined afterlife of reconciliation offers us, the audience, a sense of redemption.
Shakespeare, like any great writer, offers possibility for interpretation. And Icke, like a great director, has taken that opportunity. I’m no theater director, but in case any directors are reading this, here are some Hamlets I’d like to see (and they don’t necessarily have happy endings–they are just interesting to me):
• Claudius did not kill Hamlet Sr. He died of natural causes, but young Hamlet, crazed with grief, has a vision of the ghost and convinces his friend Horatio of the same. He also misinterprets things that Horatio says and the behavior of Claudius—i.e. perhaps Claudius jumps up from the play that portrays Hamlet senior’s murder out of impatience and anger at being accused of murder rather than guilt.
• Gertrude killed Hamlet Sr. because as we all know, warriors and heroes don’t always make the most sensitive and understanding of spouses. Claudius, knowing his brother’s shortcomings and in an effort to protect Gertrude, takes her as his wife and tries to have Hamlet killed.
• Perhaps Ophelia kills herself rather than marry moody brooding suicidal Hamlet?
• I’m not touching Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Tom Stoppard did it far better than ever I could.
• Fortinbras is liberating the Danish people from the oppressive rule of the dictatorial Hamlet-Claudius line. Young Hamlet is a freedom fighter determined to sacrifice himself for freedom.
And so on. I’d love to see your ideas!
[Post image: The Tragic Actor – Hamlet, Public domain vintage painting by Edouard Manet, available from The National Gallery of Art.]